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Columns
Third Place

Ken Willis, Daytona Beach Journal

Old Memories Still Race in Martha Earnhardt’s Heart

Old memories still race in Martha Earnhardt’s heart. Think of all the trophies and plaques that have been awarded to folks named Earnhardt. The collection grew by two Monday night, when the local Oceanside Rotary Hall of Fame added a pair of Earnhardts to its star–studded wall – Ralph, the longtime sportsman–racing star, and his  son Dale, whom you might’ve heard a thing or two about.

Monday afternoon, sitting in her room at the Daytona Beach Hilton, Martha Earnhardt was having mixed emotions about the evening celebration ahead. Sure, it’s nice to see her husband and son honored.

“These things are different,” she said. “It makes you proud that your husband or child was thought enough of, was as well known as much as they were for people to want to do these type of things.”

But such situations also serve as the saddest of reminders.

“It’s still hard,” said Martha. “Ralph’s been gone 30 years, and losing him was totally different than losing a child. Totally different. Two different situations.

“Hardest thing I’ve ever done – handling not having Dale any more.”

Most of the reminders don’t involve fancy dinners and podiums. Many of them come in the simple form of a lone tourist – and occasionally a tour bus – crawling past Martha Earnhardt’s old two–story home on Sedan Street in Kannapolis, N.C. Some just pass by, others stop to take pictures and a few might actually knock on the door or leave a little something on the porch.

“Had a little guy who left the cutest little jeep, with a No. 8 and a No. 3 all over it,” said Martha. “It really humbles me to know people loved Dale as much as they did, that they thought as much of him. It makes me proud to think that my child had that effect on another person.”

Memories, good and bad

Martha wasn’t staying in town long Monday. Richard Childress, the dear family friend who partnered with Dale Earnhardt for so many years and so much success, used a team jet to fly Martha to Daytona Beach around lunchtime, and she was prepared to head home after the evening’s program.

She spent part of Monday afternoon in the hotel room, working on an acceptance speech for her late husband Ralph – a speech to be read by granddaughter Kelly.

Martha, along with daughters Cathy Watkins and Kaye Snipes, lapsed into old “war stories“ about raising the five Earnhardt children (Danny and Randy were the other two boys) while dad was racing full time.

There was Dale’s need to win at anything that involved racing, be it on wheels or foot. At age 12, he once irritated one of his sister’s 14–year–old boyfriends to the point that he’d chase him. Dale outran him all the way around the block, laughing the whole way.

“Ag–gra–vatin’ ...“ said Kaye, remembering her little brother’s childhood years.

And there are the many stories of daddy Ralph at the local short tracks, where he built a reputation as a hard–nosed driver who won a lot (sound familiar?).

“Trying to remember who the guy was,” said Martha, “but he was gonna shoot Ralph one night. And another one, he was behind Ralph on the track, and he claimed that Ralph led him into the wall.”

“He always made everybody mad,” Cathy said of her dad, “because when he took his cars to the racetrack, he was ready to race. He’d unload his car and sit down on his truck. Everybody else would have their cars all apart, the wheels off, changing springs or whatever. Then he’d go out there and scald their dog, so to speak. They couldn’t stand it.”

‘He loved to do it’

Once it became apparent Dale would follow dad’s footsteps, the racetrack wasn’t as much fun for Martha.

“With Ralph, he started racing when I was so young ... You know, I just assumed he knew what he was doing,” she said. “But when your child gets in there and he starts down that straightaway, and it doesn’t look like he’s letting off at all ...”

Given what happened on Feb. 18, 2001, surely there are times when Martha Earnhardt wishes she and her family had never seen a race car or track.

“I wished a lot of times Dale had chosen a different career,” she said. “Same goes with Dale Jr. I used to stay with him some when Dale would be gone. He’d build his little racetracks and had his little cars ... I told him, you need to build race cars, not race them.”

Martha still spends her Sundays in front of the television, watching Junior. Kaye tells of how, just as the initial green flag is waved, Martha lets out this long heavy breath as if to say, “OK, let’s get through this.”

One can only imagine the anxiety involved with watching a grandson circle the same tracks circled by a son – a son who gave his all, then lost it all, doing just that.

Looking across the room at her mother, Kaye said, “How many times did he tell you, if he died in a race car, don’t worry about him, that he died doing something he loved to do?”

Martha nodded.
         
“And he loved to do it,” she said. “I don’t know of any other race car driver who loved it as much as he did. I really don’t.”

Darlington, Rock Lose Races; Sport Loses, Too

There were plenty of whispers, and a ton of outright speculation, along with some fears and, of course, rumors. Plenty of rumors. But the ultimate sign of problems ahead came a few weeks ago with a seemingly routine NASCAR press release about the reshuffling of its public relations department.

Longtime frontliner Jim Hunter, while keeping his VP title and shady parking spot, will take control of NASCAR’s weekly local–track touring series (the former Winston Racing Series, now called the Dodge Weekly Series). Stepping into some of Hunter’s former duties will be Ramsey Poston.

The release looked OK through a few paragraphs, and then a few paragraphs later you discovered that Poston cut his PR molars at a place called Powell Tate in Washington, D.C. (hub of Spinners Universe), and specialized in something called “issue management and crisis communication.”

Poston, according to the release, “will especially concentrate on public relations initiatives in the country’s top 20 media markets, and those involving non–traditional media outlets.”

While confessing to the potential of misinterpretation, this sure sounds like Poston’s job description could read: “Will help us cushion the PR blow of dumping on Rockingham and Darlington.”

Details to come

So this is the outcome of the Texas lawsuit? Rockingham loses its one remaining date, and Darlington loses one of its two? Well, at least that’s the talk – and, by the way, it isn’t being denied.

Texas will get its second date. Phoenix, in that NASCAR hotbed of Arizona, will also get a second, and you have to assume Kansas City or Fontana will also somehow get a second from somewhere, unless we’re simply waiting on that Great Northwest track to spring up in Seattle or Portland.

All the muddy back–channel details will eventually air out – such as, there’s no way the France family’s ISC is netting a loss of one race while Bruton Smith’s SMI gains one unless some cash or a high draft pick (rights to the All Star race?) changed hands.

Then again, maybe not, since it appears Bruton’s bunch was sitting ace–high in this game of Texas Hold ’Em. There is, after all, no way that even NASCAR’s beefiest Boys in Legal wanted this trial taking an ugly detour into the anti–trust jungle.

Sky’s the limit

Like a pair of external boosters on the space shuttle, Rockingham and Darlington are jettisoned in the name of higher altitude. They call it progress, and assuming you’re one of those who will benefit financially from it, so do you.

But you’re probably not. You’re probably nothing more than a fan who enjoys watching races on tracks that offer a little something extra. Tracks like, for instance, Rockingham and Darlington, two of the top five NASCAR tracks on anybody’s list.

Naturally, it’s all being done for shareholders and those with pockets deeper than Russian poetry, the networks. And now, it seems to me, all the pressure falls on the folks at NASCAR’s research–and–development center, where the “race car of tomorrow“ is taking shape. If that car doesn’t lend itself to action at passive tracks, what good is taking your product to a bigger audience if your product isn’t really your product anymore?
         
And whatever happened to the theory of not elbowing folks on the way up because you’ll probably pass by those same folks on the way down? Isn’t the base truth of racing “what goes around comes around”?

Then again, we don’t know much. Except for what we like, of course.

Talladega Ugliness

A scene I can only imagine from last Sunday at Talladega, in a VIP suite high above the, um . . . you know . . . race fans: The CEO from Acme Widgets, under heavy courting by NASCAR’s Big Guns in Marketing, is nursing the final sip of one final gin and tonic as the cars below hum by at about 70 mph to finish the “race.”

The Big Guns had limousined Mr. CEO to Talladega from his suburban Atlanta home for his first taste of NASCAR, in hopes of separating him from some of his company’s profit margin – the first step in making Acme the “Official Widget of NASCAR.”

Mr. CEO gets the full treatment, including three hours of contrived closeness – seemingly linked sheet metal circling the big track at nearly 190 mph. And he even gets a scaled–down version of a Talladega “Big One“ – a “perfect wreck“ for the Boys in Marketing because it looks worse than it turns out, and is therefore fair game for future promo spots.

After filling his belly at the open bar and buffet, occasionally marveling at the colorful show below, and beginning to think NASCAR is a bandwagon worthy of his hitch, Mr. CEO starts asking questions of his host.

Mr. CEO: “Why are people throwing stuff on the track?”
          Big Gun: “Come this way, let’s grab another drink before they start packing away the bar.”

Mr. CEO: “Why are they so mad?”

Big Gun: “They’re not mad, sir. They’re passionate. They didn’t want to see the race end under caution.”

Mr. CEO: “Then why do it?”
         
Big Gun: “I’m guessing safety, sir. Turn these cars loose for a one–lap shootout, anything can happen.”

Mr. CEO: “Oh, so it’s OK to wreck an hour ago, but not at the end? Interesting. Bottom–line it for me, we don’t get to see a finish?“20

Big Gun: “Safety, sir.”

Mr. CEO: “Where’s my coat?”

In the end, we can probably only dream. But if something remotely similar to the above happened last week, and if it rightly leads to NASCAR waking up and eliminating yellow–flag finishes, the Talladega ugliness will have led to something good.

Tony And Rusty

As Ol’ Hickory, hunkered down near New Orleans in 1814, told British general Sir Edward Pakenham, “Don’t sing it; bring it.“ Or something like that.

Who else should heed that advice? Rusty Wallace, for one.

And anyone else who has a problem with Tony Stewart.

Don’t go crying to NASCAR or, worse yet, some well–coifed network pit reporter. You know where Tony’s garage stall is located, you know where his team hauler sits, you know where his motorcoach is parked. Good grief, are you so accustomed to having everything done for you that you can no longer take control of your own destiny?

NASCAR, with its pick–n–choose method of discipline, isn’t in the frame of mind right now to pick or choose Stewart. Sure, just three months into the season, Tony has run into everybody but the beer vendor, but to the best of our knowledge he hasn’t uttered one of the Seven Dirty Words into a network microphone, so there’ll be no punishment.

(As an aside, I’ve begun to assume Tony has an evil twin – Anthony, or as the other hooligans call him, “Ant’ny” – who gets into all this mischief. Tony likes puppies and takes his friends bowling. Anthony is T–r–o–u–b–l–e.)

Anyway, even Darrell Waltrip, who, at Tony’s age was hardly winning friends and influencing people, came out this week and suggested it might be time for NASCAR to sit Tony down for a race.

“All I know is every time that NASCAR takes what some would consider an extreme action – parking a guy to get his attention – that extreme action has made a difference,” Waltrip wrote on one of the 4,829 NASCAR–themed Web sites.

If Stewart’s bumper–car mentality continues, perhaps NASCAR will eventually have to step in. But before that happens, one of the offended drivers should step up. Take matters into your owns hands – or bumper.
         
David Pearson once decked a young and mouthy Tim Richmond for basically looking at him wrong. You don’t have to necessarily go to that extreme, but you could at least let him know it’s on your agenda.